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Suffolk plans to seize shuttered, neglected Dowling College campus in Oakdale

Maryann Almes, president of the Oakdale Historical Society, says that the Vanderbilt Idlehour estate, former home of Dowling College, has fallen into disrepair. Suffolk County officials say they plan to seize the 25-acre site along the Connetquot River after its owner failed to pay more than $4 million in property taxes over the past three years. Credit: Morgan Campbell

The former Oakdale campus of shuttered Dowling College — including the ornate Idle Hour estate once owned by railroad fortune heir William K. Vanderbilt — could become Suffolk County’s most notable zombie property, officials said.

County officials say they plan to seize the 25-acre site along the Connetquot River after Delaware-based Mercury International LLC, which bought the property in a 2017 auction, failed to pay more than $4 million in property taxes over the past three years.

County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. said his office could take the deed to the property as soon as January and eventually could sell the campus.

"At one time it was very picturesque, a very pretty area, a college that had a great reputation," Kennedy said in an interview. "We should move quickly and get it back out to the market and put it out for sale."

Attempts to reach Mercury International or its representatives were unsuccessful. Mercury sued Islip Town last year in a dispute over the company’s property tax bill.

Islip officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The county’s move would be the latest twist in a long-running saga that began when Dowling closed its doors in 2016 after filing for bankruptcy. Since then, two separate auctions have been held to sell the campus.

Mercury officials had announced plans to develop the site as an educational program after the company bought the property.

But the site has remained vacant, become overgrown with unmown grass and attracted vandals and trespassers, neighbors and officials said. Residents of Oakdale’s Idle Hour neighborhood have formed a community watch group to monitor the campus.

"We have a big, giant mess here," said Maryann Almes, president of the Oakdale Historical Society. "People bought houses in this community because they loved this neighborhood. … It’s very shameful what’s going on over there."

County Legis. Anthony A. Piccirillo (R-Bohemia) said Mercury should "fix the property or sell the property."

"I feel that they failed in their responsibility to maintain a historic building. They failed in their stewardship of the property," Piccirillo said, adding that Dowling had "kept the grounds pristine. To see a historic building fall into disrepair is disheartening."

After Mercury bought the property, Islip Town approved special zoning designed to protect Vanderbilt’s 19th century mansion, as well as preserve a decorative well on campus and the beloved "Love Tree," a weeping beech tree next to the mansion.

Town inspectors have inspected the property 15 times since March, when they responded to complaints of alarms sounding on campus, Islip spokeswoman Caroline Smith said. Last week, inspectors cited the parcel for four property maintenance violations, Smith said.

"The grass goes uncut, the storms that we’ve had have downed limbs and that has not been drawn away from the property," said Steve Birkeland of Bayport, an Oakdale native and historical society member. "It’s sad when you … drive by and you know that there’s no one in there and no one benefiting from it."

Almes is hoping that will change.

"It’s a wonderful property," she said. "It just has to find the right buyer that is going to love it."

DOWLING’S HISTORY

1880s: Vanderbilt family builds Idle Hour mansion along the Connetquot River.

1920: William K. Vanderbilt dies, after which Idle Hour is owned or rented by other occupants and briefly serves as an artists colony.

1963: Property purchased by Adelphi College, which offers classes there.

1968: Adelphi spins off campus as Dowling College.

2016: Dowling College closes.

2017: Princeton Education Center submits winning $26.5 million bid to buy Oakdale campus. The company backs out two months later. Mercury International wins new auction, agrees to purchase campus for $26.1 million.

2019: Mercury sues Islip Town in tax dispute.

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